A Straight Angle: Richard Benson on What The Gays Can Teach Us
It’s 11pm on a Saturday night in Paris in the mid-2000s, and I’m in the middle of a mate’s three-day bender of a stag do. He’s a semi-professional rugby league player, and it’s as blokey as you might expect. Everyone’s very drunk, no one knows what to do next beyond drinking more random beer and repeating Little Britain catchphrases, and then suddenly my mate Julian says, “I know a club we can go to. Come on, lads!”
We follow him to a little place in the 4th arrondissement called Bears’ Den. Outside it is a rainbow flag and a small queue of chunky, nicely turned out bearded men. It doesn’t take long for some of our party to register.
“It’s a fucking gay club,” says one, perceptively. “I don’t want my fucking arse destroying!” says another. “You should be so lucky,” says Julian, and leads the gang – with the stag, but minus a few arse-conscious refuseniks – down the stairs into a cellar that smells of sweat and expensive aftershave, throbs with disco-ified house music, and is full of handsome, friendly men. It’s great.
I find Julian on the dancefloor, sweating and grinning with three of the other more up-for-it lads. “Here we are again, hijacked by you,” I shout in his ear. “Don’t pretend you don’t love it, you wanker,” he shouts back.
I’ve known Julian since I was 11, and we have been very close friends: he’s godfather to my first daughter; in the days before he came out in his early twenties, my younger sister was his beard at his family events. He’s vice chair of York Pride now. A couple of years ago, he got York City Football Club to bill one of their league fixtures as a Football vs Homophobia event, and it was only when I went to watch it with him that I really thought of him as “a member of the gay community”. I felt very proud of him that day, but also lucky to have a connection to that community through him, despite being straight myself. I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to appropriate anything here, it’s just that when I thought about it, I’d shared a lot of enjoyment, support and ideas with the gay community over the years, and I was grateful for it. I’ve thought about a lot since then, because it seems to me that, as the new identity politics has had more influence, the times when different people and communities mix together and influence each other seem to have become undervalued. But I think, particularly if you’re British, those are always the best times.
When I was growing up, most of my best friends were gay, although it wasn’t always discussed openly. At junior school I was best pals with a kid called Robert who lived in a big house at the end of our village. He was a bit geeky looking and avoided most of the other village kids, but for some reason he seemed to like me and invited me to his house. One Sunday afternoon when we were about 10, we were watching TV in his bedroom when he pulled out a suitcase from beneath his bed and took from it a few softcore porn magazines. He passed one to me, and feeling a bit uncomfortable, I flipped through the well-thumbed pages, feeling surprised that geeky Rob should be interested in naked women. “I like the pictures with the men in best,” he said. Oh, OK, I thought, please don’t ask me which ones I like. “Which do you like?” Thanks to a pathetic people-pleasing streak that has dogged me throughout my life, I didn’t want to disappoint Rob, but at the same time I knew that to lie and say “men” would be a mistake on several levels. To be honest, I wasn’t much into any of it, so I said, “All of it, really.” Nothing happened, and I don’t remember him getting the magazines out again, but I do remember thinking, “Oh, so gay sex really must exist then,” as I walked home for my tea.
In my teens I befriended another obviously gay but not out kid from our village, this time a couple of years older than me (contrary to rural-Yorkshire stereotype, there were at least five gay men in our village of 600 people when I lived there). He was called David. His parents and elder sister Dora were intellectual aesthetes, and as I was pretentious (and my parents were, by contrast, pig farmers) I used to go round to suck up to them. The desire to ingratiate myself explains why I agreed when David suggested we enter our village fete’s fancy-dress competition; my desire for Dora is why I went along with his idea of us being Worzel Gummidge and Aunt Sally, with me as the latter.
Dora, a museum curator (a museum curator!), made me up in their kitchen. It took a really long time. David watched all of it, and Dora, gazing into my eyes as she applied the eyeliner, said, “You’d make a lovely girl.” I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, in fact I loved every minute, but I think that was the point at which I realised that human sexuality might not always be straightforward. (We came second by the way. There’s probably a joke in there somewhere).
I met Julian when we started senior school. It wasn’t screamingly obvious that he was gay in his teens, because he was into heavy metal, motorbikes and rugby league, and worked weekends for his dad, who was a builder, and had that sort of humour. Looking back, though, the fact that girls always liked hanging around with him, and his choice of Abba as the subject for his first-year English talk might have been a giveaway to the more c ulturally attuned. The moment I realised something was up was when we went to see the Associates in Leeds, and Julian observed Billy Mackenzie was a “really sexy mover”. That wasn’t the sort of thing straight boys said, but I really liked him saying it because it hadn’t occurred to me before then to look at men’s bodies and movements in the way I looked at girls’. That observation about Mackenzie’s hips changed how I looked at people for the rest of my life, although at the time, I just mumbled something noncommittal in return.
There was so much else I learnt from Julian in the years that followed: he was the first person I knew who played house music, the first to talk about the colours of clothes, the first to cook, the first to talk about his sensual reactions to things, the first to say he felt European. We went to gay clubs together, and I really enjoyed them because I was really into the music and was never very good at chatting up girls in nightclubs anyway. And when we went down the Reeperbahn in Hamburg and I said it was a bit dubious because I thought it was the PC thing to say, he told me to fucking get over myself. That’s a very useful thing to be told when you’re in your twenties.
When I went to university in London, I shared a house with two very tall, good-looking boys, a sybaritic intellectual called Chris, and a gay man from Oswaldtwistle, Lancashire, called Andrew. Both of them made me feel impressed and intimidated at the same time, but Andrew was the first gay man I’d really known who could illuminate a room with wit and flamboyance. He also had a really nice silk dressing gown, merely being in the presence of which made me feel like I was living in a Noël Coward play. We used to go out to Heaven, and to Madame Jojo’s in Soho, which were more boisterous and open than gay (or straight) clubs up North; they were great in the way that anywhere is that’s full of people who are getting to be free after having to be circumspect in their day-to-day lives.
The thing I really remember about Andrew was that he didn’t care about refusing to do certain things or going certain places. “Come with me into this sports bookshop,” I once said to him as we were walking down Charing Cross Road. “No thanks,” he said. “I hate sport. I’ll wait outside.” Years later, he apologised to me for this (“It was your interest. As a friend I should have taken an interest myself”), but in fact it was exactly the sort of thing that I thought was very cool about him. I suppose he knew the world wasn’t going to go out of its way to please him and had decided that he wouldn’t try to please it, either. Doing what you want and not caring what others think: straight men are always claiming to do this, but often they don’t really do it, because they’re pack animals.
Looking back on my relationships and subsequent friendships with gay men, it’s easy to say that they’ve helped me find out there wasn’t just one way to be or see things, and to acknowledge my senses, and that sort of thing. But it feels like there has been more to it than that. Male straightness isn’t bad, but one of its unpleasant, restricting aspects is its assumption that there’s one right way to do things. You can believe that only if you live and see things the one way, and it you do believe it, you have those narrow ideas of success and failure that make lots of straight men so very, very unhappy. Julian – I don’t say all gay men, I’m not being glib – knew that there wasn’t one right way, and everything was a matter of choosing. I learnt that from him, which is one reason I mentioned feeling grateful. I also learnt that choosing in the straight community wasn’t always simple. Watching pissed “straight” blokes furtively flirting with Julian or his friends, getting felt up myself by a married middle-aged tourist when I worked on a hotel reception when I was 20, or just hearing stories about married men cruising, always made me think that the last taboo of all might be those ambiguities that lie out on the dark, troubled edges of straightness. I think it can’t be broken fast enough.
Photography courtesy of Richard Benson. Taken from Issue 52 of 10 Men – COMMUNITY, BELONGING, UPLIFTING – available to purchase here.